This year’s story dates back to my graduate school days in the University of Illinois Landscape Architecture program.
In the Spring of my first year, a group of graduate and undergraduate students decided to attend the annual conference of Landscape Architecture students, LABASH, hosted that year by the University of Arizona in Tucson.
My recollection was that our contingent of attendees added up to 4 carloads, and we headed out as a caravan as we began our long journey from the department studios in Urbana.
We made a group decision that if we were driving over 1,500 to Tucson, we should visit some of the landscape highlights in Arizona, so we detoured to the Petrified Forest National Park and then the Grand Canyon.
I think if you have a heartbeat, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed and humbled by the visual spectacle of the Grand Canyon.
And…if you’re a group of young and impetuous college students, it’s almost as impossible to avoid making rash and ridiculous decisions.
Standing at the South Rim of the canyon, we decided to hike to the bottom and camp out overnight. We were, of course, completely unprepared to camp anywhere, even a suburban backyard. Undaunted by our profound lack of knowledge, we grabbed our sleeping bags, some food and beverages and began heading down a nearby trail.
It didn’t take too long to realize that the whole going down to the bottom part was not especially easy.
Parts of the trail had been wiped out by rock slides, making it challenging to negotiate in sneakers.
It took around an hour of strenuous hiking for our logic to catch up, and cries (literally) of mutiny began.
The majority of the group wanted to turn around and continue immediately to Tucson.
I was not prepared to give up on the adventure, and luckily (?), neither were John or Brett.
We continued our downward journey while the wiser members of our group returned to the cars.
I was exhausted when we finally entered a small camping area where groups of hikers were already set up for the evening…already set up with tents, cooking apparatus, and….you know, camping equipment.
John, Brett and I, the 3 U of I dopes, laid out our sleeping bags and unpacked our food…a jar of peanut butter, some bread, a jar of jalapeno peppers and a couple of avocados.
Some of the other campers came over to check out our curious setup.
“Where’s your tent?”
“You have a tarp, don’t you?”
“That’s your dinner?!”
Clearly, we were candidates for the Darwin Awards.
Someone took pity on us and came over to lend us a tarp as a park ranger entered the site.
That's when we learned from our fellow camper that permits were required and the lack of a permit would likely result in a fine and immediate expulsion.
We had a panicked 5 minutes to come up with a believable story...members of our party had turned around and they had the permit.
Our friend's boyfriend had applied for the permit, and we only knew his first name.
It might work, but just in case, we thought it wise to use our secret weapon...Brett.
Brett was probably the kindest, most sincere person in the Landscape Architecture program.
He was also one of the best looking.
Lucky for us, the park ranger was female. John and I voted that Brett should do all the talking. As the ranger approached, Brett smiled and offered her a slice of avocado.
It took one walkie talkie conversation for our story to crumble, but surprisingly, we were allowed to stay.
I like to think it was the combination of Brett’s smile and the avocado, but it could also have been my borderline weeping/pleading that I would not be able to turn around and make the hike back to the rim.
So, we spent a very cold night on the rocky ground with unidentified animals crawling over us while in our sleeping bags.
One of those animals chewed though a backpack and ate our bread that was supposed to be breakfast.
It was an uncomfortable night of little rest in one of the most beautiful and magical places I have ever seen.
The trip back home to Urbana was a pretty frightening and eventful one...
but that's another story.